NAACP protesters prepared for the worst: Either Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions withdrew from consideration as Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee or they’d risk arrest during a sit-in at Sessions’s Mobile, Alabama, office.
The sit-in was part of the NAACP’s wider protests against Sessions’s nomination. The civil rights organizations said on Tuesday that it plans to protest in five of Sessions’s Alabama offices — in Mobile, Huntsville, Dothan, Birmingham, and Montgomery. And former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who served in the defense of community activists that Sessions previously prosecuted, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking them to oppose Sessions’s nomination.
“As a matter of conscience and conviction, we can neither be mute nor mumble our opposition to Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions becoming attorney general of the United States,” Brooks said in a statement. “Sen. Sessions has callously ignored the reality of voter suppression but zealously prosecuted innocent civil rights leaders on trumped-up charges of voter fraud. As an opponent of the vote, he can’t be trusted to be the chief law enforcement officer for voting rights.”
There’s a good reason the NAACP picked this as its public fight against the Trump administration. The NAACP has for decades worked to protect the voting rights of black Americans, which states like Alabama have historically worked to suppress. But Sessions has repeatedly voiced opposition to even basic voting protections for black Americans. And if his nomination as attorney general gets through the Senate, he’ll be in charge of the one federal agency in charge of protecting people’s voting rights.
Sessions opposes voting rights legislation
The key victory for voting rights during the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law allowed the federal government to supervise state-run elections, particularly in states that have a history of discriminating against black voters. Its passage and enforcement quickly led to huge improvements in black voter registration and turnout in Southern states.
Sessions, however, does not appear to view the law as a big victory. He previously called the Voting Rights Act a “piece of intrusive legislation.” And after a Supreme Court decision in 2013 massively weakened the Voting Rights Act, he opposed efforts to update the law so the federal government could continue to oversee voting laws in places with histories of discrimination.
Sessions, in fact, denied that Shelby County, Alabama — which brought the challenge against the Voting Rights Act to the Supreme Court — ever had a history of discrimination against black voters. “Shelby County has never had a history of denying voters and certainly not now,” he claimed after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.
Shelby County and Alabama have a long history of discrimination of all kinds — the kind of discrimination the Voting Rights Act set out to combat. And the Supreme Court’s decision allowed Alabama to pass a strict voter ID law in time for the 2016 election — a policy that makes it harder for minority voters in particular to cast a ballot, since they’re less likely to have IDs and more likely to face hurdles to obtaining one.
As a federal prosecutor, Sessions also used concerns about voter fraud — which is extremely rare — to go after activists registering black voters. In the 1980s, he prosecuted Albert Turner for alleged voter fraud after Turner helped black voters register in Alabama, earning the nickname “Mr. Voter Registration.” The charges fell flat, with a jury deliberating for less than three hours before finding Turner not guilty of all counts of mail fraud, altering absentee ballots, and conspiracy to vote more than once. This moment is very telling: These kinds of court challenges would be tried time and time again by conservative lawmakers and prosecutors, even in 2016, to stop black voter registration efforts.
As attorney general, Sessions would lead the US Department of Justice, which oversees the enforcement of federal voting rights laws. This could lead to a return to the days of the Bush administration, which did not take accusations of voter suppression or other civil rights violations very seriously. He could also guide the Justice Department to focus on voter fraud, which Republicans have cited as part of an effort to make voting more difficult — typically in a way that disproportionately hurts minority voters with less access to transportation or flexible job hours that make it easier to vote.
This record alone is troubling enough for civil rights advocates. But even worse, Sessions has also made some very troubling — even racist — remarks in the past.
Sessions also has a history of racist remarks
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions, then a prosecutor, to serve as a federal judge in southern Alabama. The nomination quickly turned controversial — and was rejected — when multiple witnesses testified that Sessions had repeatedly made racist remarks.
In one example, a prosecutor, J. Gerald Hebert, told Sessions about the time a federal judge called a prominent white lawyer “a disgrace to his race.” Sessions replied, “Well, maybe he is.” Hebert also claimed that Sessions once said the ACLU and NAACP are “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.”
Thomas Figures, a black prosecutor, also said that Sessions had called him “boy” and told him to be careful with what he said to “white folks.” Figures also claimed that Sessions said that the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.”
Sessions did not deny and even acknowledged most of the accusations, claiming that many of them were jokes and taken out of context. “I am loose with my tongue on occasion, and I may have said something similar to that or could be interpreted to that,” he testified. He also said that the KKK is “a force for hatred and bigotry.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee did not buy it — and rejected Sessions’s nomination.
But Sessions’s colleagues in the Senate have indicated that they may give him a pass this time around, pushing civil rights organizations like the NAACP to take more drastic measures to voice their opposition.